Colombia-US: Fight Over Trade Deal Is On

(IPS) – Although the Democratic Party has made it clear that it will oppose the free trade agreement with Colombia, President George W. Bush sent the trade deal Tuesday to the U.S. Congress, which now has 90 working days to vote on it.

Analysts in Colombia say the stakes are high because if the trade deal, which was signed 16 months ago by the two governments, is not passed now, it will collapse, or at the very least will take several years to be approved.

This is the first time since fast-track negotiating authority, now known as Trade Promotion Authority, was created in 1975 that a U.S. administration has introduced a bill that is opposed by the party that controls Congress.

Under fast track authority, the House of Representatives has 60 working days and the Senate another 30 days to approve or reject the bill, without making any amendments or blocking a vote.

When asked by journalists about the risk Bush is taking by submitting the free trade agreement to Congress, Colombian Minister of Trade, Industry and Tourism Luis Guillermo Plata said he supported the move and added that it is Bush "who knows how U.S. politics work."

"The free trade agreement is a national priority," Plata underlined.

The Colombia issue has been installed in the U.S. election campaign as a result of Bush’s argument that as long as the left-leaning Hugo Chávez governs Venezuela, the alliance with rightwing President Álvaro Uribe in Colombia is a question of "national security."

Republican candidate John McCain has already declared his support for the free trade agreement (FTA), while Democratic hopefuls Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton are both opposed to the deal.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that "By sending up the Colombia FTA legislation under circumstances that maximise the chances it will fail, (Bush) will be adding one more mistake to his legacy".

Democrats argue that the FTA will hurt job stability in certain sectors of the U.S. economy, that killings of trade unionists and the lack of labour rights in Colombia are still a serious problem, and that the South American country’s lax environmental regulations would mean products from that country would have cheap entry to the U.S. market, making it difficult for local producers to compete.

Analysts say that by playing the national security card, Bush will force the Democrats to decide whether or not the Uribe administration is a key Washington ally, in a region where leftwing and centre-left governments have been voted into office in most countries and both the United States and Colombia are increasingly isolated.

But if the Democrats vote in favour of the FTA, they stand to lose crucial support from U.S. trade unions.

Senator Clinton’s campaign has been directly affected by the issue. Until Sunday, Mark Penn, the CEO of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, was Clinton’s chief campaign strategist.

The Colombian government had hired Burson-Marsteller for 300,000 dollars a year to lobby U.S. lawmakers to vote in favour of the FTA and continued financial support for the Plan Colombia counterinsurgency strategy.

But Penn resigned from Clinton’s campaign after The Wall Street Journal reported last Friday that he had met with Colombian Ambassador Carolina Barco.

While one of the arguments set forth by Clinton in her opposition to the FTA is the violation of labour rights in Colombia, Penn is an adviser to corporations like Coca Cola, which is facing legal action in connection with the murders of trade unionists in its bottling plants in Colombia.

Rafael Rincón, director of the Oficina háBeas Corpus, a consultancy on rights and governance in the northwestern city of Medellín, said Penn advises companies "on union-busting and the undermining of labour rights."

When the conflict of interests was revealed, Penn apologised for his meeting with Ambassador Barco, which he called "an error in judgment".

Saying Penn’s reaction showed a "lack of respect" for Colombians, the Uribe administration then terminated its contract with Burson-Marsteller.

"Colombia has become a ‘hot potato’ in Washington. Bush says the FTA is a question of national security, just as he described Iraq five years ago," said Rincón.

The analyst also said "the Penn scandal has made it clear that Colombia’s foreign policy is based on the trafficking of influences" and "is reduced to war lobbying."

Observers say that if the FTA fails to make it through the U.S. Congress, the economic slowdown that some experts already forecast for Colombia as of 2012 is bound to be blamed on the lack of a free trade deal.

Former cabinet minister Mauricio Cárdenas, who is now head of Fedesarrollo, says that without the FTA, investment in Colombia will begin to fall off, starting in 2009, and annual economic growth will be half a percentage point lower.

Over the last year, Ambassador Barco, advised by Burson-Marsteller, has organised all-expenses-paid trips to Colombia for more than 50 U.S. legislators, in an effort to convince them to vote for the FTA.

On Monday, Barco acknowledged that articles and editorials published in the U.S. press over the past year, that were favourable to the Colombian government and argued for approval of the FTA, were a result of Burson-Marsteller’s lobbying efforts.

Bush, meanwhile, argued Monday that "President Uribe has done everything asked of him." "In discussions about the Colombia free trade agreement, some members of Congress have raised concerns about the conditions in Colombia. President Uribe has addressed these issues. He’s addressed violence by demobilising tens of thousands of paramilitary figures and fighters. "He’s addressed attacks on trade unionists by stepping up funding for prosecutions, establishing an independent prosecutors unit, and creating a special programme that protects labour activists. He’s made clear that the economic benefits the agreement brings to Colombia would strengthen the fight against drugs and terror, by creating a more hopeful alternative for the people of Colombia. "If this isn’t enough to earn America’s support, what is?" Bush asked. But despite several significant measures that have brought about, for example, a drop in the number of kidnappings, 11 trade unionists have been murdered so far this year in Colombia, according to the president of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT) central trade union, Carlos Rodríguez. And in the six years since Uribe first took office, over 400 labour activists have been murdered, the Escuela Nacional Sindical (National Trade Union School) has reported.

Since the killings of trade unionists began in the 1980s, only three percent have been clarified. Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for labour organisers.

Bush also failed to mention the findings of the U.S. State Department, which said in its latest report that the number of extrajudicial killings of civilians by the Colombian security forces has gone up.

A coalition of Colombian human rights groups has documented 955 murders of civilians by the armed forces since Uribe’s first term began in August 2002. And the number of such killings was 10 percent higher in 2007 than in 2006.

Furthermore, as paramilitary chief Salvatore Mancuso himself admitted last weekend in an interview from jail, the demobilised paramilitaries are rearming themselves.

Prior to the rearming, which began late last year, and in the midst of a unilateral ceasefire declared by the far-right paramilitary militias in December 2002, the groups committed at least 3,530 murders and forced disappearances up to June 30, 2007, according to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a human rights organisation.

Nor has Uribe’s all-out offensive against the leftist guerrillas kept them from killing and "disappearing" 1,805 people in nearly the same time period (July 2002 through June 2007), as the U.S.-based Latin America Working Group Education Fund reported Monday.